Ernst Lubitsch is the master of elegance. His direction is so seamless, his characters so witty and his plots so finely tuned. Under the veneer of sophisticated glamor, Lubitsch was able to smuggle in risqué, progressive characters under the nose of the formidable Hays Production Code. TROUBLE IN PARADISE, NINOTCHKA, TO BE OR NOT TO BE, DESIGN FOR LIVING and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (among others) feel so modern and not just because they feature some clever sex comedy. His comedies are precise, sharply written and cast to perfection. THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER is probably the most accessible and enduring, because its story is one that transcends generations.
The idea is so simple: two pen pals fall in love but they hate each other in real life. The most obvious comparison is the hit Nora Ephron romantic-comedy YOU’VE GOT MAIL (starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan), which adapts this story to the mid-1990s. Unlike other screwballs comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, which pit men and women against each other until the final act, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER adds an element of suspense. When will Klara (Margaret Sullavan) and Alfred (James Stewart) find out whom they’re writing letters to, and what will their reaction be?
Unless you’ve never seen a movie ever in your life, it’s obvious that the movie will have a happy ending (as progressive as Lubitsch was, I doubt he’d split his lovers apart at the end). Lubitsch is able to bring in believable obstacles and situations that keep Klara and Alfred apart. It’s not just their own stubbornness, but also the changing moods of their employer Mr. Mastuchek (Frank Morgan, known to many as the Wizard in THE WIZARD OF OZ). Mr. Matsucheck‘s own romantic troubles—his adulterous wife, the unseen Mrs. Matsuchek)—drives a lot of the tension. Because Mr. Matsuchek believes Alfred seduced his wife, the atmosphere in the gift shop is low, and so the tension between Alfred and Klara is high.
This is the elegant plotting that Lubitsch was known for. It would have been easy for Alfred and Klara to simply dislike each other because the script tells them to. But their quarreling is organic (not to mention, highly charming). What I love about Klara and Alfred is that Klara isn’t the shrew to Alfred’s cool guy. Klara has some great moments, which modern romantic-comedy writers should take note of, that allow for her to become her own person. Alfred too isn’t some lovable doofus, who needs a woman to rein him in. As played by Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, Klara and Alfred are romantic heroes that you can really enjoy seeing on their journey to each other.
The other characters in the Matsuchek gift shop are also quite lovable, particularly the errand boy Pepi Katona (William Tracy). I just love Mr. Matsuchek as well. I’m not sure if his name is supposed to be a laugh line but it’s such an amazing name for a character. One of my litmus tests for comedies (beyond just being funny) is: do I want to live in this world? There are some comedies I like a lot but would not ever want to meet the characters. THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER is the kind of movie I just want to step into. The Hungarian Christmas setting, the funny characters and the element of plausible fantasy really work for me. I can’t say everyone will love this movie, but if you don’t find it at least charming, then I really don’t know what to tell you.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER is different from other Lubitsch comedies like TROUBLE IN PARADISE and NINOTCHKA because it is purposefully non-glamorous. I mean, sure, James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are glamorous without even doing anything. But the story goes that Lubitsch wanted this film to be different—no elegant costumes, or eccentric wealthy main characters or elaborate sets. Lubitsch reportedly had Sullavan buy a dress off the rack and then set it out in the sun to give it a worn look. THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER feels very working-class and thus more believable. The “Lubitsch touch” doesn’t need any external signifiers of wealth to be glamorous and sophisticated. The “Lubitsch touch” comes from characters and his clockwork direction.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER is a film that feels modern. Remarkably influential to the romantic-comedy, the movie is earnest and charming, and delivers on its promise of sophisticated romantic shenanigans. With a cast of fun characters and a story that is simple in premise but layered in execution, the James Stewart/Margaret Sullavan starrer is a staple for cinephiles.